I woke up this morning thinking about trees, specifically the trees in our back yard. They were a major attraction to buying this house ten years ago, and our affection for them has only grown over time. An upside of a cool summer, in which I have gone swimming less often than usual, is spending more time on our deck. I’ve been bringing my laptop out here regularly, and the trees companion me with stillness and strength as I work. Annually we spend a substantial sum to fertilize, feed and trim them, but we feel a profound duty, in the most positive sense, to steward the health of these trees entrusted to us. In severe storms, they sway and drop outer branches, but their overall integrity remains sound. Unlike the past few summers of drought and extreme heat, at this point the branches are leafy and vibrant green. When conditions are dry, my husband faithfully runs the sprinklers.
Perhaps because of the contrast with the fluidity and motion that struck me on our recent trip to Lake Michigan, the trees’ stately rootedness invites reflection now that I am home. This week they provided the backdrop for reading news reports and blogs about Pope Francis’ recent remarks that explicitly rejected women’s ordination. His statement was a blow to many who have found in Pope Francis such hope for renewal of the church. Trees provide a useful metaphor for one’s spiritual life in the midst of communal division and disagreement. Like the elm or the oak or the cypress, we need to nurture deep roots of our own to remain steady in storms. As I have shared on this blog, under Pope Benedict I found myself increasingly alienated from the church, particularly with the new missal. But eventually I reached a point where I could not let that define my faith life; I didn’t want to be angry all the time. So I had to let go of the church to a certain extent, which actually allowed me to greet Pope Francis with an open mind. I have greatly appreciated his model of simplicity. His urging to look outward rather than inward corresponds with the experience of rooting my faith in more than just the church structures and liturgy. “Outside” encounters – at a food pantry, with people of other faith traditions, in my local community – have nourished new growth for which I am grateful. On the flip side, such deeper roots of personal faith also preclude hero worship of Pope Francis. He is a human being, not the messiah. As adults, we’re called to a clear view of reality, not wishful thinking.